I grew up mostly unrooted, so when I read Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, I wished that I, too, had grown up poor in a rural Georgia junkyard with parents so religiously fundamentalist they forbade my wearing pants, cutting my hair, or having friends over to play. That’s just how good a storyteller she is. But Ecology is even more than a great story, it’s an act of devotion to place. Ray’s embrace gathers in the human tales of family and Cracker culture, but also those of the longleaf pine forests that once blanketed the South. For those of us who lack her deep connection to culture and land, this book is an occasion for longing.
Ray’s rootedness fascinates me, as rootedness always does when I meet people who have it. Outside the South, they’re not that easy to find. Most of us in the U.S. are mobility incarnate, variously attached—or not—to a series of addresses, but without deep knowledge of the places we live. Even if we feel fiercely devoted to our city or neighborhood, we rarely know the deep, ecological story of the land our houses stand on. Ray’s book is about roots in that deepest sense. Its chapters alternate between yarns about family and tales of the longleaf pine and its whole forest ecosystem: the complex interdependence of pine trees and wiregrass, indigo snake and gopher tortoise, scrub buckwheat and chaffseed and the Mississippi sandhill crane. She tells that story, too, in a way that will hold you spellbound.
Both kinds of chapters present a cast of characters a fiction writer might envy. Her father Franklin Delano Ray is a mechanical genius who can make anything out of spare parts, and also suffers the mental illness that runs through his family line. At one breaking point, he locks himself and his family in a bedroom for hours, finally allowing his wife to feed the children by choosing one item—without looking—from an upright freezer that stands in the room. We also meet his father, Charlie, a brutal and absent man; Charlie’s wife, who supported her abandoned family by selling moonshine; Ray’s other grandmama Beulah Mae who loved birds and grew the sweetest corn; Ray’s self-sacrificing mother Lee Ada Branch Ray; her Uncle Percy; and three siblings.
In telling about her family, Ray could sound bitter and angry, resentful of her poverty and lack of opportunities. But she’s generous and forgiving, grateful for having been so deeply loved. In writing about her own past, Ray’s also after the larger character of the South that also shaped who she became. So one chapter tells the history of the Crackers, originally immigrants from the wild Celtic borderlands of Britain, and from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Clannish and suspicious of outsiders and government, the Crackers were given to whiskey-drinking, fighting and hatred of fences—for they were traditionally herders. “History,” Ray writes, “had rigged them to be Southerners.”
It’s easy–and tempting–for people who grow up in small places to leave and forever shun their past. I tried it with Kansas. But even though Ray left for college and worked to shed her junkyard background and Southernness, ironing out her accent and speeding up her speech, she eventually went back. She went back to reclaim her small, local place in all its richness: its people, its culture, its history, and her own past, including her rural Georgia speech. She also went back to fight for the longleaf forests and the creatures who depend on what’s left of them. At the back of the books, she lists the threatened, endangered, and extinct species of the region, and the organizations fighting to save that part of the earth.
I will never be a Cracker child in a junkyard, but after reading Ray’s book, I’m more determined than ever to learn the place I do live in as deeply as I can. Every local place has value, every one is worth saving. Slow life is local life, and the more we know, the more we love; the more we love, the more we work to protect. If you’re looking for something slow to do this week, how about taking a walk and introducing yourself to a neighbor, to the humans, trees, creeks, and creatures that share and have shared your world. And try on Ecology of a Cracker Childhood for a good, slow read.